Ray J, “All I Feel”Ray J opens his fourth album in refreshingly candid fashion. The former teen-star-turned-sex-tape-celeb rails about being in the spotlight, being dismissed as Brandy’s little brother and ultimately rebelling. Then for the rest of the album, he goes on to detail his favorite activities, mostly sex-related, coming off like a wannabe rapper in singer’s clothing. There’s nothing wrong with him trying to prove himself, except when he tries too hard. His macho exploits range from womanizing (“I Like to Trick”) to strip-club hopping (“Gifts”) to seducing another man’s wife (“Boyfriend”). Subject matter aside, many of the tracks are catchy and club-friendly, and a brief moment of non-horny clarity comes with the Rodney Jerkins-produced title track, a “One Wish”-esque ballad about heartache.
P.O.D., “When Angels & Serpents Dance”Anyone who’s written off P.O.D. as a hard rock also-ran in recent years will have to bring a new set of ears to this disc. The return of original guitarist Marcos Curiel after a four-year absence is momentous enough, but the 13-song set is also the San Diego quartet’s most mature and ambitious outing to date. P.O.D. still brings the noise on such tracks as the opening “Addicted,” the fierce “End of the World” and “God Forbid,” which incorporates Helmet’s Page Hamilton and swings like a sledgehammer. Those are made all the more effective by the cuts that chart a different course, including the slinky funk of “Kaliforn-Eye-A” (with Suicidal Tendencies’ Mike Muir), the roots reggae-flavored “I’ll Be Ready” (with the Marley Sisters) and the Spanish guitar-driven instrumental “Roman Empire.”
Marie Digby, “Unfold”This young, Los Angeles-based folk-pop lady rocketed to renown last year with a bare-bones YouTube cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” that garnered millions of views and eventually found its way to top 40 radio and MTV’s “The Hills.” A slightly souped-up version of “Umbrella” closes out Marie Digby’s debut, but original material dominates “Unfold,” which should appeal to fans of Vanessa Carlton, Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. As her YouTube clips make clear, Digby has a voice worthy of the solo-acoustic approach; what she doesn’t have yet are the tunes, so the best cuts here surround her singing with lots of high-end pop-rock studio flash. Cue up the jaunty “Stupid for You” or the crunchy “Girlfriend” for highlights.
Hayes Carll, “Trouble In Mind”On his Lost Highway debut, this Houston-based country-rock crooner covers Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” but judging by the rest of “Trouble in Mind,” it might be too late for Hayes Carll. The fine songwriting here, rich with Texas-music echoes, suggests that this 32-year-old is the owner of a much older soul. Carll tills thematic soil well-known to any country fan — as one title puts it, he’s not really interested in stories that don’t include someone suffering from a “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” But throughout “Trouble in Mind” he views the familiar with fresh eyes. In one tune he’s “got a girl out in Henrietta” whose “love is like tornado weather”; in another he catches sight of a “barefoot shrimper with a pistol up his sleeve.”
Lady Antebellum, “Lady Antebellum”Not only is this one of the best new-artist debuts in recent memory (think Dixie Chicks in 1998), Lady Antebellum’s self-titled set will go down as one of the year’s best, period. The singing/songwriting combination of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood is fresh and mature. The trio’s unique vocal arrangement -- Kelley’s blue-eyed soul leads on some songs, Scott effortlessly leads on others, and the two also duet -- sets them apart. “Love Don’t Live Here” is driven by Kelley’s powerful vocal, while Scott shines on the defiant “Long Gone” and the romantic “Can’t Take My Eyes off You.” “All We’d Ever Need” and “I Run to You” finds the pair seamlessly intertwining in the tradition of Crystal Gayle and Gary Morris.